(HOST) There’s a new fascination in the McCarthy era of the 1950’s, and commentator David Moats has been trying to decide why.
(MOATS) McCarthyism is back in vogue.
There’s the new movie, called “Good Night and Good Luck,” filmed in black and white, with lots of cigarette smoke swirling in the air. In the movie Edward R. Murrow, the courageous reporter for CBS, takes on the brutish, bullying beast, Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. There’s also a new book, called The Age of Anxiety by Washington Post reporter Haynes Johnson, who tells the story of McCarthy’s rise and fall in the early 1950s.
Something is going on here, and Haynes Johnson makes it clear what he thinks it is. He thinks we’re in a time like the McCarthy period, haunted by fears of external enemies and manipulated by power-hungry politicians. For some of us the McCarthy period is intriguing because it took place in the years of our childhood, and exploring that time is like learning the dark secrets of our parents’ lives. So this is what the grown-ups were talking about!
The jargon from the McCarthy era lingered on into the sixties when we were coming of age. So we grew up hearing about communist sympathizers and pinkos and fellow travelers.
What’s stunning in retrospect is how boorish McCarthy was, how dishonest and vicious. We ask ourselves: How did he get away with it? He got away with it because people were afraid, and they had reason to be. The atom bomb and all its horrors were in their infancy. Communist revolution and aggression were dangerous realities – in Germany, Greece, Turkey, China, Eastern Europe, Korea. So in 1951, Joe McCarthy went to Wheeling, West Virginia, where he gave a speech saying he had a list with the names of two hundred five Communists who were working inside the State Department.
Well, there wasn’t exactly such a list. And there weren’t exactly two hundred five names. The numbers changed and so did his story. But never mind. It was an accusation that played to people’s fears, and it launched him on a spiral of lies, distortion, innuendo, intimidation, alcoholism and disgrace. No one would take him on for fear of being labeled soft on communism, and that included a beloved president, Dwight Eisenhower, who detested him, and Lyndon Johnson in the Senate, who thought he would self-destruct, which he did. Richard Nixon had to grab McCarthy at a supper club one evening when McCarthy attacked columnist Drew Pearson, kneeing him in the groin, twice.
Why are we talking about McCarthyism now? Haynes Johnson writes about the paranoia that followed 9/11, which led to the roundup and detention of thousands of prisoners, mostly Muslim men, living legally in this country. There have also been inaccuracies, you might say, about the war in Iraq. Haynes Johnson likens it to the McCarthy period and also to the Red Scare of 1919.
McCarthyism involved more than McCarthy and the fears associated with his name did not die when he did. We face different struggles today but the need to remain true to the values of democracy is as powerful as ever.
This is David Moats from Salisbury.
David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.